Like many survivors who charged the beaches of Normandy, France, on D-Day in 1944, Bob Slaughter carried a burden for decades.
He was 16 when he joined the Army National Guard in 1941 in Roanoke, Va. Three years later, his unit – the 116th infantry regiment of the 29th division – had been transferred to regular Army and stormed the right flank of Omaha Beach in the third wave of the invasion designed to liberate France.
Slaughter survived that day on June 6, 1944, unscratched. He returned home and silently mourned those left on the battlefield.
In 1987, he started fearing that D-Day was forgotten and cooked up an idea to remember the dead.
The $25 million National D-Day Memorial was built and dedicated June 6, 2001, in Bedford, the Virginia town of 3,200 that lost 19 men on Omaha.
Slaughter, now 82, served as the memorial's first chairman.
He's become one of the best-known D-Day vets, and today he'll be in Charlotte to receive the Carolinas Freedom Foundation's Special Achievement Award at the group's US Airways Freedom Breakfast. The event is held yearly around Veteran's Day, Nov. 11.
At the breakfast, the foundation will also present its Freedom Award to HonorAir of Henderson County, which since 2006 has chartered six US Airways jets to fly more than 650 World War II veterans to Washington and the memorials.
“Bob Slaughter was part of that group that had just an inordinate number of casualties and he felt something needed to be done to remember those who died,” said Quincy Collins, the foundation's founder. “He felt that not only did those men need to be recognized, but also a community that sacrificed above and beyond.”
By June 6, 1944, the Army had put weight on Slaughter's 6-foot-5 frame when the teenager ran through the chattering of machine gun fire and tracers from Germans on the beach and bluffs above.
“We had to get across 400 yards of sand with no cover at all,” said Slaughter, who last year published his memoir called “Omaha Beach and Beyond, The Long March of Sgt. Bob Slaughter.”
“We got the hell knocked out of us.”
Later that day, he found a bullet hole in his jacket. His 60-pound pack was also full of them.
He was untouched.
His Company D didn't fare as well. More than 70 were either killed or badly wounded. All four company commanders, 10 sergeants, two corporals and 32 privates were gone.
In all, 1,000 men from the 116th died that day.
A month later, a bullet creased Slaughter's forehead at Couvaines, France. On Aug. 7, a piece of shrapnel hit him in the back just above his kidney.
That sent him to the hospital for 30 days. He rejoined his unit in Germany and on May 6, 1945, they met up with Russian troops at the Elbe River. Two days later, their war ended in Europe.
Slaughter went home and back to school, then to work at the Roanoke newspaper. When he retired in 1987, he couldn't understand why no one was talking about D-Day.
“It was just forgotten around here,” he said. “This area produced more D-Day casualties than any place in America because of where we landed. So many men were lost that it devastated the whole region. They needed to be remembered long after we're gone.”